It’s really hard to fight urges.
If you’re trying not to do something (e.g. quit smoking or drinking), it can feel like your mind is never going to stop urging you to just do it. The urge builds and builds as your mind fixates on it more and more.
The same is true when you’re trying to persevere with something that is hard (e.g. keeping up a good habit). Your mind does the same thing, but in reverse — it keeps urging you to stop, with the urge building as your mind fixates on it.
Meditation allows you to see this fight up close. In a typical meditation routine you’ll be focusing on your breath, observing your mind as it darts around.
It can be incredibly tempting to fight against those thoughts darting around your head, pushing them away in an effort to keep your mind empty. That’s a common problem for people when they first start meditation (myself included).
Buddhist teachings, such as those summarised by Sogyal Rinpoche in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, help to clarify things and solve this problem.
The placid sea
Buddhism teaches that beneath your day-to-day thoughts there exists your most basic awareness. This awareness is untouched by ego, desire and other emotions that represent a grasping for something that you don’t already have. It’s like a placid sea — totally calm and untroubled.
We may see glimpses of this calm, placid sea. If we distance ourselves from the sources of ego, desire and other ‘negative’ emotions (such as by going on a quiet holiday), we might get to see it.
The reason that the placid sea is (for many people at least) quite rarely glimpsed is because of those negative, grasping emotions. They’re the waves that rise in the placid sea, making it choppy and unpredictable.
Through meditation you develop an ability to see the waves more clearly. You can trace their route back to their origin, identifying the underlying causes behind your mental strain. Then, over time, you become more adept at seeing the waves rise. Eventually you can see a negative thought forming before it even rises as a wave.
Whether meditation and Buddhism interest you or not, they have something to teach us about urges.
Our tendency to fight urges creates a cycle of negative emotions. You feel the urge come and it’s a little (or sometimes very) painful to be disciplined enough not to give in to it. If you think of the urge as something you’re fighting against, this pain is supplemented by a fear of the next punch that the urge will throw at you. Soon you’re in a cycle of pain and fear, totally churned up. This doesn’t leave you in any state to maintain self-discipline — it’s pretty likely that you’ll cave in.
If instead you think of these urges at waves, something interesting happens — you remember that every wave breaks. However hard it is to stay disciplined whilst the urge tempts you, you at least have the comfort that the urge won’t last forever.
Each time you succeed in self-discipline, the next wave that your urge sends is a little smaller. Over time the waves get smaller and smaller, becoming tiny little swells. They also become rarer. Perhaps they return occasionally but by now they’re a familiar friend, keeping you on your toes.
It won’t be easy
Nothing significant is ever easy. Thinking of urges as waves doesn’t remove the need for serious self-discipline. This isn’t easy — meditation can help.
But thinking in terms of waves creates a different image in your mind. It tweaks your perception of the situation. I certainly found that it helped.
Also published on Medium.